What is…Tarantella in dance?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms, the tarantella

What is a tarantella

Tarantella is a very fast, feverish dance rhythm in 6/8 time that sets the pulse racing. A piece of music with this rhythm would likely alternate between major and minor.

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Once upon a time there was a delightful story connected with the tarantella. The people of the southern Italian seaport of Taranto had discovered that the best way to counter the effects of the deadly local ‘tarantula’ spider was to perform a kind of manic whirling dance.

The diarist Samuel Pepys clearly believed it: in 1662 he recorded a gentleman traveller telling him that at harvest time in Italy ‘fiddlers go up and down the fields everywhere, in expectation of being hired by those that are stung.’

So it is with a sense of weary inevitability that I inform you that 1) the bite of the Taranto wolf spider is not normally deadly, and 2) if it were, dancing wouldn’t help a great deal – apart from providing a temporarily useful distraction, that is.

What a shame.

There’s something about that driven 6/8 rhythm that easily conjures up a desperate life-and-death dance. 

As to its musical ingredients, an alternating DA-da DA-da and DA-da-da DA-da-da rhythm is the archetypal tarantella pattern. If some of the rhythms are dotted – ie DA-de-Da (as in the ‘Witches Round Dance’ from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique) – then you’re probably talking about the ‘leaping’ saltarello, apparently a product of Naples.

The famous ‘Saltarello’ finale of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony is sometimes described as a tarantella-saltarello hybrid: either way, it still sounds pretty dark and delirious. As does the finale of Schubert’s so-called Death and the Maiden Quartet – not actually described as a tarantella, but it fits both nickname and music beautifully. 

But despite the debunkers’ best efforts, the connection of the tarantella to dance-or-die abandonment turns out to have a plausible history after all. It seems, however, to have been the music itself that drove people wild, with the possible assistance of a few carefully selected herbs…

Descriptions of dance-centred Dionysiac rites in Ancient Greece sound very similar – such was the frenzy this kind of dancing induced that the Roman Senate later felt it necessary to ban it – and some scholars suggest that the ‘spider-bite-cure’ story arose as a way of legitimising such disreputable practices.

Whatever, it was a gift for Romantic composers.

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This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine